Churches established in New York City and San Francisco
BY THE TIME WITNESS LEE took his first trip to the U.S. in 1958, the church in New York City was already meeting in Queens and the church in San Francisco was beginning to take shape. The brothers in China had long believed that the truths of the Lord’s recovery might someday reach the West through the spread of ministry publications or by returning Western missionaries who had had contact with the Lord’s recovery, not through migration of co-workers. And, at least in New York City, this was proving to be the case.
A small group of American missionaries who had met with the church in Shanghai began meeting together in the New York City area as early as the mid-1940s, having been repatriated following the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II. They included a physician named Thornton Stearns, who had been appointed by Watchman Nee as an elder in the church in Shanghai, his wife, Carol, and two sisters—Elizabeth Peck (later Rademacher) and Beta Scheirich. Nee had encouraged the returning missionaries to meet with a group of believers in the New York City area who were followers of T. Austin-Sparks’ ministry. The group included a brother named Eugene Gruhler, Sr.
Through the 1950s, saints from the churches in the Far East, including a brother named Stephen Kaung, who had been among Nee and his coworkers in China, also joined. By 1957, according to some accounts, up to one hundred people were meeting together under the name Christian Fellowship Center (CFC). That year, however, after a number of disagreements, the group disbanded. Most returned to denominations, but three couples, including the Gruhlers, continued to meet. After a period of time seeking the Lord as to a way forward, the little group, joined by about twenty others from the disbanded group, took the Lord’s table together on January 5, 1958 in the Gruhler home as the church in New York City.
Witness Lee visited New York City several months later, during his 1958 trip around the world, accompanied by Stephen Kaung, who translated for him during his messages. Lee encouraged the church, telling them that this was a new beginning. He also asked Kaung, who had moved to San Francisco around the time of CFC’s disbanding, if he would return to New York City to strengthen the leadership there, which he did in October of that year. Lee would visit a second time in 1960, releasing a series of messages on God’s building and the ground of the church, which deeply impressed Gruhler, Sr.
The church in San Francisco was also established in 1958. Due to the changing political situation in China in the late 1940s and early 50s, many Chinese fled across the Pacific and landed in San Francisco, including some who had been among the churches. At first, the brothers and sisters in the Bay Area did not meet together. The catalyst for the first meetings in San Francisco was a sister named Gloria Lane, who had received the Lord as a young woman and had met with the church in Shanghai. Later, having fled to Hong Kong, she attended meetings in 1950 in which Nee and Lee had ministered side by side and she began to see the vision of the church and of the Lord’s recovery.
In December of 1952, Lane migrated with her family to San Francisco with a fresh sense of purpose regarding the church life. Before leaving Hong Kong, the elders laid hands on her with prayer and provided her with a list of brothers and sisters scattered throughout the Bay Area. Upon her arrival, she contacted Su Mei Kung, a sister who had been baptized in the church in Chefoo in 1946 and who had brought Lane into the church life back in Shanghai. Together, they persistently telephoned the list of contacts and brought them together. Through their labor, the nucleus of the future church in San Francisco was formed.
Twenty-five to thirty saints began to meet together, first in homes, and later in a rented facility on Filbert Street in North San Francisco. Witness Lee visited in the spring of 1958, and it was requested of him that elders be appointed. Lee agreed and asked Albert Chang, S.T. Tan, and Jonathan Kong to take the lead. Soon after, the brothers and sisters began to meet as the church in San Francisco.
Brother Lee visits Westmoreland Chapel in L.A.
In Los Angeles, Brother Lee’s 1958 visit to a small congregation at Westmoreland Chapel left many of its members with a question that seemed to reverberate long after he left. The group was affiliated with the ministry of T. Austin-Sparks and was pastored by Charles Harrison. As such, they were familiar with matters of the experience of Christ as life and were not unfamiliar with Watchman Nee.
Brother Lee was invited to give a message at Westmoreland Chapel, with Stephen Kaung serving as his translator. The subject was the tree of life. Lee asked the congregation: “Have you eaten Jesus today?” Thinking that the question might offend the American audience, Kaung translated the question: “Have you taken Jesus today?” Lee stopped his speaking and insisted on “eaten.” The question lingered in the ears of some of the members, particularly in a brother named John Ingalls and another named Jim Reetzke, a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary.
A year later, in the summer of 1959, the congregation at Westmoreland was joined by Samuel and Lygia Chang, who had recently migrated from Hong Kong. Samuel Chang was Watchman Nee’s brother-in-law and the Chang and Nee families had been close for generations. Despite his close relationship with Nee, Chang’s spiritual blossoming came later in life. During his years in mainland China, according to Witness Lee, he had not been an ardent spiritual seeker. On at least one occasion, he accompanied Nee on his travels to rural villages to visit seeking believers, and couldn’t understand how Nee was able to endure the physical hardship of such visitation. Chang had passed through the great revival of the late 40s, which Brother Lee counted among the great revivals in the history of the recovery, without being revived.
In 1954, however, after moving from mainland China to Hong Kong, Chang had a new beginning and pursued the Lord more fervently. After T. Austin-Sparks sowed doubt concerning the ground of the church in his second visit to Taiwan in 1957, Lee delivered a series of messages on the practice and ground of the church, which were subsequently published in The Ministry of the Word. These messages made a profound impression on Chang. He would become, according to Lee, an “expert” on the ground of the church.
Chang’s son and daughter-in-law lived in Southern California, and in 1959, in fellowship with Lee, Samuel and his wife, Lygia, decided to migrate to Los Angeles. Brother Lee suggested that they meet at Westmoreland Chapel, where several other brothers and sisters from the Far East were beginning to meet. Chang arrived in San Francisco in July, where he was picked up from the harbor by Jonathan Kong, who recalled, “The first thing he said to me when I tried to welcome him was, ‘I came to this country to worship God.’”
Charles Harrison, the pastor of Westmoreland Chapel, welcomed Chang warmly, even inviting him to give sermons. To Harrison’s chagrin, however, Chang repeatedly spoke on the ground of the church. It wouldn't be long before Harrison limited Chang's speaking, accusing him of teaching “something from the East.” Nevertheless, Chang’s speaking intrigued several members of the congregation.
Chang invited to his home all those who had a heart to hear more about matters pertaining to the Lord’s recovery. Informal gatherings in Chang’s home included John Ingalls, Jim Reetzke, a brother named Paul Ma, who had been in contact with the Lord’s recovery elsewhere, a brother named Ted Wen, who knew Reetzke in seminary, and approximately fifteen other brothers and sisters.
“One city, one church,” Chang reminded them again and again. In order for the church to be built up and receive the Lord’s commanded blessing, he said, the believers needed to stand on the ground of oneness, the ground of locality. Over time, those meeting in Chang's home began to see that the ground of the church was something of the Lord.
Not long after Chang moved to Los Angeles, T. Austin-Sparks visited Westmoreland Chapel. During his stay, he visited the Reetzkes in their newly-purchased home in Altadena, north of L.A. Seeing the spacious residence as an ideal location for a ministry center, Austin-Sparks consecrated the Reetzke home to the Lord. Jim Reetzke later admitted that, at the time, he was impressed by Austin-Sparks’ ministry of the word and his eloquence. He recalled, however, what Samuel Chang had told him: “The ministry is for the church, for the building up of the church—not to provide a platform for a minister to have his ministry.”
A desire for the church life
“The longer we went on together at Westmoreland,” Reetzke recollected, “the more intense was our desire for the church life, which we felt we did not have and were not enjoying.” Some time around October of 1960, Charles Harrison, uncomfortable with Samuel Chang’s influence over the congregation, indicated that Chang and those who were meeting in his house were no longer welcome at Westmoreland Chapel.
In December 1960, Witness Lee visited Los Angeles a second time, and met with the seeking ones at Westmoreland, including Chang, Ingalls, and Reetzke. Ingalls asked Lee if what Chang had been speaking concerning the ground of the church was scriptural. Brother Lee responded by speaking at length about its scriptural basis. He told them that the temple in the Old Testament was a type of the church in the New Testament, and that according to Jehovah’s command the temple had to be built only on the proper ground chosen by God, the ground of oneness, which was signified by Jerusalem. Due to the degradation of the children of Israel, God’s people were carried away into captivity in Babylon, and the ground of oneness was lost. By example, he pointed out that due to the degradation of the church, the oneness of the church was lost. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, however, depicted the need for a remnant to leave Babylon (the degraded church) and return to the proper ground of Jerusalem (the ground of oneness) in order to rebuild the temple (typifying the building up of the church). Ingalls later wrote that those listening were “ready to take this stand immediately.” Lee, however, counseled them to wait until there could be further fellowship, particularly with Charles Harrison.
The following night, Lee gave a message in Chang’s home on the seven “ones” in Ephesians 4: one Body, one Spirit, one hope of the believers’ calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one Father. Charles Harrison and the responsible brothers from Westmoreland Chapel attended. After the message, Lee met with Harrison and the responsible brothers, along with Chang. During the conversation it emerged that Harrison had prohibited meetings from being held in Chang’s home, causing embarrassment for Harrison and prompting one of the responsible brothers to concede that such a prohibition was not scriptural.
Lee felt that the group at Westmoreland should not take any action to separate themselves from Harrison because Westmoreland’s standing was ambiguous. In an attempt to more clearly understand the standing of the congregation, Lee met with Harrison the following day for more than six hours. In the course of their discussion, Lee assured Harrison that he and the churches in Hong Kong and Taiwan had encouraged migrating brothers and sisters to meet with Westmoreland Chapel based on the understanding that it agreed with the ground and practice of the church. In this, the underlying differences between the East and the West were made clear.
Lee pointed out how the supply that the churches in the West had gained from the Lord had been received by the East over centuries of missionary and gospel work. However, the churches in the West seemed unwilling to receive the supply that the churches in the East had received from the Lord. The East received what the West had seen concerning the principle and vision of the church and was one with the West concerning these matters. However, the West refused to receive what the East had seen concerning the ground and practice of the church. Indeed, Lee recalled, the West had even condemned Brother Nee when he had been in London years earlier due to his view of the practice and ground of the church. Brother Lee realized that the difficulty in Los Angeles was related to this fundamental issue. Ted Wen put the matter to Harrison, pointedly:
“The Body of Christ is universal. If you say that what the churches in the East see is something Eastern and should not be brought to the West, let me ask this question: When the gospel was initially preached from the West to the East, if the people in the East had said that the gospel was something Western and thus should not be brought to the East, what would have happened?”
Harrison assured Lee that his aim and hope was that Westmoreland Chapel would be the proper expression in Los Angeles. Lee, understanding that this was a work in progress, encouraged both sides not to insist on anything, but to remain open, coming together to seek the Lord’s mind and await the Lord’s leading. Lee urged the brothers and sisters who had been meeting at Chang’s home to be very careful and to do nothing hastily. Jim Reetzke later recounted,
“Witness Lee said that things were not clear at Honor Oak, but that Westmoreland was even more unclear. If Westmoreland were a denomination, we should leave it. He defined a denomination as a group who had a special name or a special fellowship (i.e., some are accepted, some rejected) or a special doctrine. He also said that it was not clear whether or not they were on the right ground. Brother Lee was not at peace and had some reservation about Westmoreland. He asked the question, “Is now the right time?” Continuing, he said, “We run a risk if we continue in this line. Such would be a shame to the Lord, to His name, and to His teaching. I am confident that the Lord will do a work in Los Angeles. We do not want to frustrate the work of God at this time. I am concerned for our future, so it is better to stop now and wait and see. You cannot do anything that is doubtful. We must always act from a pure conscience.”
–James Reetzke, Recollections With Thanksgiving, A Brief History of the Beginnings of the Lord’s Recovery in the United States : Chicago Bibles and Books
Nevertheless, after Lee departed L.A., Harrison publicly remonstrated those who had been meeting in Chang’s home. Still, the brothers and sisters continued to meet at Westmoreland. They also met, almost daily, in Chang’s home to pray for the testimony of the church in Los Angeles and for the Lord’s interests in the United States.
In April of 1962, Witness Lee returned to California for the third time and gave a conference in Palo Alto. Twenty-three of the seeking brothers from Los Angeles drove to the conference to meet him, hoping, in John Ingalls’ words, “that he would tell us that we had better leave that group and start meeting as the church.” To their disappointment, Lee continued to encourage them to wait and pray. Lee later quipped that after this, “they said, ‘Don’t ask Brother Lee about any matter. When you ask, he will only say that you must pray.’”
The beginning of the church in Los Angeles
“Little by little,” Jim Reetzke later wrote, “some of us were coming to the distinct realization that what we were part of was not a local church.” Although Charles Harrison had told Witness Lee that he was willing to change, Westmoreland Chapel had remained the same. As the brothers prayed, their inward sense of clarity increased. The issue came to a head in May of 1962, when Eugene Gruhler, Sr., visited Los Angeles from New York City. After hearing the experience of the brothers in Los Angeles and their current conviction, Gruhler, who just four years earlier had gone through a similar struggle in New York City, asked them, “Since it seems you are so clear, why do you hesitate any longer?”
The brothers in L.A. concluded that the time had come to take the ground. Two weeks later, on May 27, 1962, in the Chang home, they broke bread as the church in Los Angeles. They telephoned Witness Lee to let him know about the stand they had taken. Lee felt assured that the brothers were clear before the Lord and that this was something of Him.